Zero-sum game for Nepal’s ruling Communists


Prime Minister K P Oli was half way through his one hour delivery to the Upper House on Sunday, defending his move to dissolve the lower chamber of Parliament, when he spat from the rostrum.

The Prime Minister was figuratively spitting at Parliament, but in doing so live on television it became a symbolic demonstration of his attitude towards the Constitution and democracy itself.

The clip of Oli’s audible spit went viral on YouTube and Facebook, with the prime minister once more coming under blistering attack. Cartoonists had a field day on the front pages of national dailies. But none of this has so far deterred Oli from getting back at his detractors by trying to take his party down with him.   

Three weeks after he abruptly dissolved the Lower House and called for elections in five months, Oli has been increasingly on the defensive, mounting spirited attacks on party rivals, and flying to far corners of the country as if he is already out on the campaign trail.

Oli has had a double kidney transplant, and is on heavy medication, but has not let the Covid-19 pandemic deter his movements. His speech to supporters in Dhangadi on Saturday was a vitriolic attacks on those who opposed his move.   

Oli is increasingly isolated with only his core allies now standing by their man. The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) faction led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal have formed a parallel leadership, and claimed the former UML Sun election symbol.

Even as the Supreme Court resumes debate on 13 writ petitions against the House dissolution on Wednesday, former chief justices, lawyers, some civil society members and editors have united against Prime Minister Oli’s move, denouncing it as unconstitutional and anti-democratic.

Street protests have continued nationwide, and the split in the party between the Oli and Dahal-Nepal factions has affected provincial assemblies, permeating right down to the ward level. For all practical purposes the NCP has already split, it just has not been formally announced yet.

The real question is: who benefits? Whichever way the Supreme Court goes, either to reinstate the Lower House or endorse the prime minister’s move, it is the NCP that will be the loser. And what a fall from grace it will be for a unified party that commands a 65% majority in Parliament, and leads six of Nepal’s seven provincial governments.

And all this because the two top comrades in the NCP could not get along. Indeed, the greatest gripe that the Dahal-Nepal faction had against Prime Minister Oli is that he did not listen to them. Dahal waited halfway into Oli’s tenure, and was impatient to be party Chair or Prime Minister, while Nepal just wanted more respect from his erstwhile colleague.

Prime Minister Oli’s biggest political failure is politics. It is the art of give-and-take, but for Oli politics during this two-and-half tenure, became take-and-take. Any other leader would have smoothed out ruffled feathers, accommodated rivals to make his own position more secure. But he chose full confrontation.

Oli’s argument is that he took the united NCP to a landslide in 2017, but that the Dahal-Nepal side tried to undermine him from day one. Actually that exposes his own inability to find a compromise and blunt the internal threat.

As has often happened before in post-1990 Nepali politics, each faction now sees the other as more of an enemy than the opposition parties. Speaking of which, the Nepali Congress (NC) is dealing with a widening rift between Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel. The unending power struggle between the two almost mirrors what is happening in the NCP, and this time they are divided over whether to support Oli’s call for elections or not.

The second echelon of NC leaders, however, realise that their party can reap the benefit of a divided NCP if snap polls are held in April-May. There is also a strong grassroots push in the party for polls that leaders like Gagan Thapa and others cannot ignore.

Even if the Lower House is re-instated, the NC stands to benefit as kingmaker since there is so much bad blood between the NCP’s rivals that the Communists are as good as split. With its 60 voting MPs, the NC will carry the swing vote if it sides with either the Oli or the Dahal-Nepal faction in forming a coalition government. That is when the real horse-trading will start.

If the Supreme Court decides to back the dissolution and pave the way for elections, the NC will once again see it as an opportunity to come out of its political hibernation and make up for the loss it suffered in 2017. That will not be so difficult, since by then the NCP will most certainly have formalised a split.

There is also geopolitics. The Chinese have made it no secret that they prefer a united NCP, and are believed to be the main architects of the unification of the UML and Maoists. A slew of Chinese visitors and Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi herself have been trying to get the leaders to settle their personal differences to keep the party united.

Logically, then, China’s regional and global rivals would not be too disappointed to see the NCP split, whether there are elections or not.   

Even if the unthinkable happens and the Oli and Dahal-Nepal factions patch up, the two will be trying to undermine the chances of each other’s candidates even if it means sealing a secret pact with the NC.

If elections do go ahead, there will be other wild cards. The RPP has demonstrated some public backing for its anti-secular, anti-federalism, and anti-republican plank. This support may represent disillusionment with the present government, and not necessarily full endorsement for the return of a Hindu monarchy.

The JSP and other Madhes-based parties are also trying to establish their credentials as ‘national’ parties, and could also benefit from an anti-incumbent wave.

All eyes are now on the Supreme Court, and there is a lot also resting on the Election Commission’s decision on which faction of the NCP will get the party name and symbol.